When we talk about poets we have a picture of a delicate man having long hair with a paper and pen sitting near a brook, oblivious of the humdrum of pulsating world, waiting patiently for the divine Muse to visit him. Possessing a finer sensibility, they are born not made. Socrates speaking about his impressions about the poets said, what they composed they composed not by wisdom but by nature, and because they were inspired, like prophets and givers of oracles, “who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” His disciple Plato decided that his REPUBLIC would have no place for the poets. Nevertheless the human race has made poetry a part of its life since man has learnt to read and write. Dylan Thomas acknowledges its importance: “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”
The poets when inspired are different persons. Inspired as a school boy, Shelley is pictured thus, “his eyes flashed, his lips quivered, his voice was tremulous with emotion, a sort of ecstasy came over him, and he talked more like a spirit or an angel than a human being.” Similarly, Charlotte Bronte had peculiar eyes and on some occasion, Mrs. Gaskell observed, these would shine like light “as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled.” The ways of Muse visiting the poets are diverse. Robert Graves once revealed a peculiar experience to his audience in Oxford, “One fine summer evening, at the age of twelve, I was sitting on an iron roller behind the school cricket pavilion with nothing much in my head, when I received a sudden celestial illumination. It occurred to me that I knew everything. I remembered letting my mind range rapidly over all its familiar subjects of knowledge only to find that this was no foolish fancy. I did know everything…. I slid down from the roller, wondering what to do with my embarrassing gift.” From his childhood William Blake spoke of having visions. His friend Henry Crabb Robinson reported that at four he saw God’s head appear in a window. Around age nine while walking through the countryside, he saw a tree filled with angels and also saw prophet Ezekiel under a tree. His parents discouraged him from “lying” but did admit that he was different from the boys of his age. He began writing poetry at age twelve. His visions had a lasting effect on his works. Though he was among the literati of London’s intellectual circle he was also labelled insane, prophet and a visionary and his works never won any acclaim till long after his death. In his autobiographical verse SUMMONED BY BELLS, John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, informs us that a strong urge to write poetry came when he was seven years of age. Pealing church bells, puff of trains, sight of sailing clouds and smell of grass, were “…always calling out to me for words.”. His father tried hard to make his son a carpenter or shoot a rabbit. “Not that way, boy! When will you ever learn” but the poet says nothing else interested him, “I was a poet. That’s why I failed.”
Perhaps we all have such mysterious and illuminating visions. the artists and poets who are endowed with some extra power do not let these visions be destroyed. Sometimes the Muse flashes at the tender age of thirteen as was the case with Cowley whose first volume of poems was composed and printed in his thirteenth year. Tennyson’s and Christina Rossetti’s poetry too came early. Sometimes the Muse visits at a mature age. Robert Frost’s first collected volume came out at the age of thirty-nine. The autobiographies and biographies of many poets reveal that as children their solitude evoked by separation or death of father or mother or by some other reason, provoked them to weave dreams around them. Coleridge informs that a certain tale he read while his mother was mending socks made so deep an impression on him that he was ever since haunted by spectres in the dark, “So I became a dreamer.’ How his friend Wordsworth loved solitude and loitering around is too well known. Keats ‘s father died when he was nine and his mother to whom he was passionately devoted died when he was fifteen. This blow shattered the high spirits of his boyhood. Sylvia Plath another gifted poet lost his father when she was eight and she says,” those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle -beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.” In her autobiographical novel THE BELL JAR her heroine says, “After that, I had never been happy again.” Robert Creeley’s father died when he was two. Byron’s father was separated from his mother. Cowley’s father died before the birth of his son. Edith Sitwell, in her autobiography tells us, “my parents were strangers to me from the day of my birth.” Tennyson, Keats, Kathleen Raine and T S Eliot found their fathers strange and remote creatures. Lonely and sensitive many among these were haunted by a mysterious universe and sudden illuminations. Tennyson, the fourth of his parents twelve children, cut off from frequent contact with people, roamed through the countryside or devoured the romances and mythical works from his father’s library and thus nourished his talent for poetic expression in his rather solitary existence. He first appeared as a poet in public at the age of eighteen. The early poetic gift and his intense labour in polishing the poetic gem brought him recognition as one of the greatest poets. Milton was lucky enough to be guided by his father, “My father directed me as a child to literature and learning, which I applied myself to so eagerly that, from twelve years of age, I hardly ever retired to bed from my studies before midnight.” Till the age of thirty he felt his education was imperfect and in order to acquire a wider range of knowledge he went to Italy. PARADISE LOST and PARADISE REGAINED are among the greatest things in English poetry and written by the poet when he was totally blind.
It is also interesting to know once having captured these flashes of the vision of Muse how they got them down on paper. It was not enough for them to remain receptive and watchful to catch these flashes of illumination but they had also to be like a magnet to attract the visions. They must discover the situation or time when they can experience the creative mood. Some found themselves easy at a particular time, others with a particular pen or the colour of paper. Many poets used the same old coat or the same pen as if picking up the same pen or coat set their creative mood. Shelley said he always wrote best when in open air, on a boat, under the tree, near a pond or on the bank of a river. Ironically he died on a boat caught in a squall at the age of thirty and was buried not very far off from the grave of John Keats. Milton found dawn the best time to compose and dictate in the day sitting in an elbow chair with his legs resting upon its arms. Interestingly he chose his daughter to take the dictation. At the time of revising the draft -full of mistakes- his friends pointed out that he should have asked his son to take the dictation. He simply replied that in that case there would have been many more mistakes. Robert Burns preferred the twilight. Sylvia Plath in her last years was visited by an almost forceful creative spirit. The poems composed during this blessed time have one thing in common. In an unpublished manuscript she writes that these were all written at about four in the morning, in that blue, almost eternal hour before cock’s crow, “before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles.”
Ernest Hemingway once told his biographer Hotchner, “…I like to start early before I can be distracted by peoples and events. I’ve seen every sunrise of my life.” He had another peculiar habit, “I like to write standing up to reduce the old belly and because you have more vitality on your feet, whoever went ten round sitting on his ass? I write description in long-hand because that’s hardest for me and you are closer to the paper when you work by hand, but I use typewriter for dialogue because people speak like a typewriter works. “ It is the wonderful combination of these styles which distinguishes him from his innumerable imitators.
A.E. Houseman described his own way thus: “Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon…beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life … I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotions, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied not preceded, by a vague notion of the poem which they were destined to play a part of. Then there would usually be a lull of an hour or so, then perhaps the spring would bubble up again …. When I got home, I wrote them down, leaving gaps and hoping that further inspiration might be forthcoming another day.”
There were, however, moments of great anxiety, exasperation and helplessness when the poets found the Muse evasive and elusive. After his greatest achievement THE PRELUDE and THE EXCURSION much of Wordsworth’s poetry was deliberate and relatively uninspired. The Noble Prize winner novelist Ernest Hemingway in his last days had been terribly depressed about his inability to write. He once phoned A.E. Hotchner, “I can’t finish the bloody book, I have got it all and I know what I want it to be but I can’t get it down …. I have been at this goddamn work table all day, standing here all day, all I’ve got to get is this one thing, may be only a sentence, may be more, I don’t know, and I can’t get it. Not any of it. You understand I can’t.” He had been to the fashionable Mayo clinic, had psychiatrist sessions, mental shock therapy but he was unable to write. His world was shrinking fast and eventually he killed himself.
This, however, is an extreme case. There are many other writers who channelize their talents in other directions when they find themselves uninspired to write. Robert Lowell in the Preface to IMITATIONS writes: “This book was written from time to time when I was unable to do anything of my own.” Many poets turn to translation to cope with an uncreative period. David Gascoyne translated French poems at a time when he could not do anything else.
Poets are unique persons, unique is their world and unique is their way of working.